Food is sacred but being able to cook is worship: Chef Niyati Rao
If you are a fan of Japanese food, how would you enjoy a bowl of kani tacos, followed by white fish carpaccio, rock shrimp tempura, or a Teppanyaki sea bass as an entrée? These may be the top dishes on the menu, but don’t stop there, says Chef Niyati Rao, who was one of the first female chefs appointed at a famous Japanese restaurant in Mumbai.
“You have to ask for the seasonal foods of the evening, like the Truffle Lily Bud, the Mushroom Kamameshi Rice and Maguro Sakurayaki, which may not be featured on the menu,” she advises.
For a young chef who likes to say, “I entered the kitchen and never looked back”, her journey to success has been swift and rich in experiences. Today, she is best known for French techniques in Asian flavours. And now, as one of the chefs shortlisted for a Himalayan Japan contest, this talented young chef is headed to Copenhagen, for an internship at NOMA by Chef Rene Redzepi, a gastronomic paradise that happens to be one of the world's best-known restaurants.
Chef Niyati Rao
As one of the few female chefs appointed at Wasabi and The Zodiac Grill at The Taj, Niyati started working with rare ingredients at a very young age. By 22, she had become Chef Hemant Oberoi’s Junior Sous Chef, at his first fine-dine venture in the country at BKC Mumbai.
Later, she went to explore the culinary landscapes of Goa at A Reverie for the season to explore new flavours; the quest is still on. She has also been working in farms to understand the concept of sustainability in cuisine, and looks for rare and varieties of ingredients in the Indian subcontinent.
In between all these assignments, she also works at blending Asian ingredients, like Japanese, Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Korean flavours, with French culinary techniques to create something new and refreshing.
In an exclusive interaction with YS Weekender, Niyati tells us all about her love for food and how her passion took wing as soon as she stepped out into the real world.
YSW: Can you tell us about yourself?
NR: I am a Bombay kid who had the opportunity to travel and be exposed to different cultures of the world at a young age. My escape was always painting and cooking elaborate family meals with my mother who is a brilliant cook or going ingredient shopping with my father.
YSW: What are the best food memories from your past?
NR: I come from a family of gastronomes and our lives pretty much revolved around food. Making meals has always been a joint affair. One of my fondest memories is of the ‘annual monsoon crab curry’, which my parents would make. I would accompany my father early in the morning to get a bucket of full moon crabs, which were the best of the season. He would teach me how to handle the live crabs as they would crawl, out and we would be running around the kitchen behind them at times. But his hard work and my mother’s secret recipe was so worth it, that it is something I wait for every year even now.
YSW: Can you tell us about your work at Wasabi by Morimoto?
NR: I was assigned to Wasabi by Morimoto at Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai as one of the chefs. It was a dream come true. I have a mysterious attachment to the Japanese philosophy regarding cuisine, culture, principles, and way of life since I was seven years old, which is when I started reading about it. At Wasabi, the Japanese chef taught me the importance of discipline and perseverance.
Mutton Karanji: Simplicity is the key
Today, my style of cuisine is influenced by Wasabi’s core values of extreme freshness and seasonality. When the produce would arrive every day, I would be like a child in a candy store. I still credit my smallest habits of handling ingredients with utmost care and respect.
YSW: What do you love about cooking?
NR: The world of food is beautiful but being able to create for others is better. It is a skill, an art form that needs to be practised. I love how cooking knows no class, rules, colour, or creed. The humble warmth of a meal made by a mother to an incredible gourmet experience presented by an expert chef, all of this has touched lives in some way. Something in me changed for the better. I think it was the fact that I understood the deep ingrained truth that “Food is sacred but being able to cook it is no less than worship.”
YSW: How did you get into this business at the young age of 20?
NR: When I decided to become a chef, I wanted to get my base strong with the correct guidance and practical education. That drove me to work really hard to secure acceptance into the best hotel management institute of the country. During my last year, I was chosen by the Taj Group of Hotels for a two-year culinary management training programme and at that time I was 19 going on 20.
YSW: What was it like being a woman chef in the business? Is it harder or easier?
NR: I think that as years pass by, the term ‘woman chef’ will automatically stop making sense. I have had this mindset due to the open-minded seniors and professionals I have worked with. There was never a female or a male chef for them. When I entered the kitchen, I was just a ‘chef’. And that is the true essence and beauty of it.
YSW: What was your career path like over the years?
NR: My first experience in the real world of the cooking was at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, and it was my first experience. I worked at the prestigious French fine-dine restaurant of the city at that time, The Zodiac Grill, followed by Wasabi-by Morimoto, and each of them had something to offer. I also worked with the renowned Chef Hemant Oberoi as a sous chef at his first standalone restaurant in the country.
I got a delightful opportunity to work at a fusion fine-dine restaurant in Goa, called A Reverie. The most important things that my work has taught me are that if it is treated like a job one might do it in a mediocre way. But if your passion or hobby becomes your profession you don’t have to work a single day.
YSW: Can you tell us about your work on farms to understand the concept of sustainability in cuisine better?
Chef Niyati works with farmers to understand the concept of sustainability
NR: As a chef, I had the responsibility of being conscious about the origins of the food chain like sourcing and supporting responsibly produced crops. One simple way of becoming sustainable is to source crops from local growers, to stimulate the local economy. It supports our own people and it integrates a variety of produce. In the kitchens, many chefs are shifting to a less wastage or zero wastage policy. It is important as we are utilising a naturally made source, for a better future.
Here are some of the ingredients I love…
- Through travelling and meeting people I have discovered so many lost and rare ingredients in the Indian subcontinent. For example, a very rare variety of mushroom called ‘Olmi’ or ‘Ulmi’ can be found in Goa only during the monsoon. It is considered a delicacy, high priced, and strangely it only grows near snake pits. It is very time consuming to clean and process these mushrooms, but it is worth the wait. They are small in size, crunchy, fleshy, and firm.
- A seed fruit called “Kaphal” in the local language is the Indian myrica berry from the Himalayan region. It is bright red in colour when ripe and resembles gemstones. It has an acidic, but sweet-sour flavour. And the other berry is called “hisalu”, which is the golden Himalayan raspberry. It has a floral, honey-like taste. I can’t wait to work with this berry.
- Another interesting plant is “Akhuni”, which is a fermented soybean from the northeastern region of Nagaland. They have a very acquired taste and I am excited to figure out how to make way for this amazing umami bomb in a widely accepted dish. Yet another fruit is the “bimbl”, tree cucumber or tree sorrel from the Konkan region of Maharashtra. These crunchy lime green fruits are extremely astringent and have a very high vitamin C content. The possibilities of dishes with these ingredients seem endless. They are underrated and unknown, but packed with potential, and this is what pushes me to create and try something with them.
YSW: Which dish do you love to cook over and over again?
NR: My mother’s heavy coconut-based seafood curries, with hot steaming rice and my grandmother’s vegetarian cuisine. The pickles that my family makes also have a special place in my heart. They are all my ultimate comfort foods.
Coconut-based seafood curries are Niyati's favourite foods
YSW: What are the food trends that you love in 2019?
NR: There are some food trends that are booming right now:
- The growth of Sri Lankan food.
- The popularity of kefir, kombucha and other global fermented drinks.
- Vegetables as the main lead in a meal and not just an accompaniment.
- Food-centric malls, a concept perfected in Japan first, but spreading globally now.
- Region-centric cuisine, naturalistic cuisine, back to simple bases.
- Wild foraged produce replacing bulk produce (for example, dandelion is replacing kale).
- Ocean-inspired food, like tropical fruits, seaweed oil blends, lotus seed puffs, or water lily snacks.
YSW: What are some of the food trends of the past that we need to say goodbye to?
- It is time to let go of the following trends:
- Super gigantic foods as they might not always be enjoyable and are wasteful.
- The popularity of avocado. While I love them, I think the hype needs to tone down a bit.
- The importance of charcoal. It might look appealing but it is done and dusted now.
YSW: Can you tell us about your work where you mingle Asian ingredients (Japanese, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, etc) with French culinary techniques to create something refreshing?
NR: it is a complete trial-and-error process, which stems from my basic attitude of “trying things fearlessly”. This is something that I thank my senior chefs for. My first step is to get all the basics tight. I read a lot, I read and try out and learn from what the legendary chefs passed on in terms of culinary technical knowledge. At the same time, I was enthralled by our own Asian ingredients. The more robust and complex the ingredients, the greater is the need to create well balanced dishes.
A dish with Kiwiberries
A fusion that doesn’t take away from the basic goodness of the components. For example, foie gras is a beautiful piece of fatty liver that is served with a sweet and tart component classically, but I have served it with a sweet miso glaze, fresh perilla leaves, and green pepper. In a way that no flavour will overpower the other but bring the best qualities forward. I am still learning, but I know that this is what I want to do.
YSW: Can you tell us what the Himalaya-Japan contest was like? What did you learn from this contest?
NR: Yes, it was a lot of fun, expressing our open passion and love for the country. I thought it would be a marvellous opportunity for me to revisit Japan and experience the best it has to offer along with the Conde Nast travel guides. I learnt about the other bright minds of the country and their culinary outlook as well. It was like a large gathering of like-minded individuals.
YSW: Can you tell us how you explore the culinary landscapes of Goa to explore new flavours and lost or undermined flavours, and how the quest is still on? What kind of techniques can you tell us about?
NR: I was in Goa for an entire season, when A Reverie was doing some interesting tasks for young chefs to use ingredients, play with their textures and forms, and apply different techniques on them. They would make us visit different spice estates, local fish markets, artisanal cheese makers, and gelato houses owned by true blue Italians.
The best visits were certainly the weekly markets, where we found homemade sausages, toddy vinegars, palm sugar slabs, and preserved fish. It was good to visit old Goan Portuguese families to get a glimpse of the past, with their rare and forgotten recipes. We learnt how urak, feni and, other locally produced liquors are made it gave us new ideas on how we could incorporate them in dishes or curate cocktails as well. We would use modern techniques like sous vide and dehydration, but with a perfect balance of the age-old processes as well.
YSW: What is your advice to young and aspiring chefs?
NR: Make a decision of entering the industry with a strong mind and no possible change in heart. Your mental strength will be tested; it will be tough physically, mentally and emotionally. You have to ready to work long hours in a high-pressure environment, cut-throat competition, and insane workloads. It takes a lifetime of practice and mind-boggling hard work, dedication to see things through to the end.
YSW: What are your future plans on the food front?
NR: On the professional front, I will just keep doing what I am doing, stay focused, and go with the flow. I will be leaving for Copenhagen, Denmark, this month for an internship at NOMA. There are also many other interesting projects also lined up in the future.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)